Food waste: an 80 million ton problem that can be solved.

Camellia Williams
Mar 10 · 4 min read

In 2019, the USA generated 80.6 million tons of “surplus food” that went unsold or uneaten. Most of this ended up as “food waste,” going straight to landfill, incineration, or down the drain, or simply left in the fields to rot. It’s food that could have gone to help feed those facing hunger, and its production affects the climate, natural resources — and the economy.

The U.S. generated 80.6 million tons of surplus food in 2019. Source: ReFED Insights Engine.

Surplus food was valued at USD 408 billion in 2019, and it resulted in:

  • 4% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions,
  • 14% of all freshwater use,
  • 18% of all cropland use,
  • 24% of all landfill inputs.

ReFED, a national nonprofit dedicated to ending food loss and waste across the U.S. food system by advancing data-driven solutions, has launched the ReFED Insights Engine and its Roadmap to 2030: Reducing U.S. Food Waste by 50%, which can help the food system achieve national and international goals to cut food waste by 50% over the next ten years.

Where and how does food waste happen?

Food waste happens across the entire supply chain, from farms to manufacturers and from retail and foodservice to the home. The largest proportion of food waste occurs in the residential sector (21.1M tons or 38.9% of all food loss), followed by the farm sector (14.7M tons or 27.2% of all food loss). The manufacturing sector generates 3.89M tons of waste or 7.2% of waste.

The U.S. generated 54.2 million food waste tons across all sectors in 2019. Source: ReFED Insights Engine.

Across all sectors, 51.9% of food waste ends up in landfills, but 25.6% of food isn’t even harvested due to unfavourable economic conditions or insufficient demand. When food is wasted, the resources used to produce it, transport it, prepare it, store it, and sell it are also wasted.

Destinations of food waste in 2019. 27.6M tons (50.9% of all waste) went to landfill. Source: ReFED Insights Engine.

The problem is big, but there are many solutions.

Surplus food is often considered to be a singular problem, but it’s an entirely different situation for hundreds of tons of broccoli to go unharvested on a farm compared to a half-full platter of uneaten potatoes that’s scraped into the trash at home. But the good news is that there are a range of solutions to address it at each stage of the supply chain.

The ReFED Insights Engine Solutions Database offers solutions for every sector dealing with food waste. Reducing portion sizes, consumer education programmes, intelligent routing, and decreased transport time are just a few of the potential solutions. For each one, the financial and environmental impacts are calculated and presented clearly, along with a detailed financial analysis showing the potential benefits compared to the costs.

For example, creating smaller portion sizes could have an estimated $9 billion financial benefit, reduce emissions by 11.5M tons CO2e, and divert 2.42 tons of food waste.

Smaller portion sizes could have a big environmental impact.

Sustainability managers looking for opportunities to calculate the positive impacts of their food waste solutions can use the ReFED Insights Engine Impact Calculator. This interactive tool calculates the benefits of food waste reduction for impacts including the GHG footprint, water footprint, and the number of meals recovered — it also can show comparisons based on alternative scenarios. For those looking for solutions, a Solutions Database provides comprehensive details on a range of options and a Solution Provider Directory connects them with organisations that offer products and services that help reduce food waste.

Prevention, Rescue and Recycling are the foundations of efforts to reduce food waste. ReFED estimates that an annual USD14 billion investment in food waste solutions over the next 10 years could reduce food waste by 45 million tons each year — and achieve a 50% reduction by the year 2030. Just imagine the impact that would have on our environment. We would reduce our GHG emissions, use less land, and reduce the pressure on our freshwater resources.

Beyond the environmental impact, we also have an opportunity to establish a food system that reduces food insecurity. One in six Americans lacks reliable access to sufficient, affordable, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food. Food should not be filling landfills when people are going hungry.

Explore the Roadmap to 2030 and explore the solutions to food waste at insights.refed.com.

With thanks to Jeffrey Costantino, Communications Director at ReFED, who contributed to the writing of this blog.

Vizzuality Blog

Posts on data design, user research, open data, and…

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store